Will users replace Twitter or learn to live without it?

Since Elon Musk took over Twitter at the end of October, there is a sense that the ship is sinking, as the platform’s users rush aboard to safety. Musk’s actions, from mass layoffs to impulsive job changes, have led to widespread (if vague) speculation that Twitter itself will soon cease to exist, due to bankruptcy, technical glitch, or a combination of the two. And while the future of the platform is uncertain, the current situation is an extreme version of one of the internet’s enduring traits: everything is constantly changing. We are nomadic in our platform usage, moving from one platform to another – often involuntarily. And our constant efforts to replace what we left behind are never entirely successful. Whether we’re churning out a post-Twitter existence across a series of Mastodon and Discord servers or migrating our serious professional posts to LinkedIn, no combination will fully replace Twitter (even if we’re better off doing so).

If an old Internet user compares his current online behavior with that of a decade or even a few years ago, significant differences will become apparent, such as this animation demonstrates. New platforms appear all the time while others die out. TikTok only debuted in 2016, while Myspace had entered its final death spiral in 2011. Tumblr sputtered out in the mid-2010s due to a series of ownership transfers (for rising again as a symbolic remnant of a bygone internet). Some platforms are simply becoming obsolete, taken over by superior alternatives, undermined by broader technology trends such as the rise of mobile, or duplicated by a competitor. And then there are platforms like Clubhouse, which enjoyed a burst of explosive popularity before fizzling out. On an individual level, we either age from certain platforms to others or simply exhaust their capabilities and lose interest.

However, a few platforms have remained vital throughout most of the social media era: LinkedIn (launched in 2003), Facebook/Meta (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006). Now Twitter’s relative stability is suddenly under threat. A full shutdown still seems unlikely — Twitter will most likely stumble forward in some recognizable form. But for those who appear serious about quitting Twitter, the age-old question remains: where to now? Or rather, how do you bring all the benefits of Twitter together beyond Twitter and potentially across a range of apps and platforms? What was Twitter essential Characteristics, and where else can they be found? That’s almost a million users estimated to have left Twitter in the first week after Elon Musk took over, so that’s a question many people are already asking (obviously many will just return to Twitter, assuming it still exists).

Max Read recently imagined the aftermath of a scenario in which Musk walled in all of Twitter and degraded the platform beyond repair: “Tech workers decamp to LinkedIn and Hacker News; academics set up a series of semi-functional Mastodon ones… underemployed TV writers start overlapping, poorly produced political podcasts; sports fans go back to talk about radio, message boards, and maybe Twitch streams.

Read’s list highlights the incompleteness of a single replacement for Twitter. Many options, such as message boards and talk radio, even predate Twitter, implying a regression to the past. Mastodon — a federated network of self-hosted social networking services with features similar to Twitter — has emerged as the closest direct replacement, but it lacks the same cultural centrality and isn’t likely to reach it any time soon. Perhaps Twitter’s greatest strength is its perceived status as a digital public square: all the important people seem to gather at once, and the resulting things happen there. Mastodon is unlikely to replicate that.

It’s tempting to believe that the market will soon provide adequate replacements for tech products that are declining or dying out, but it’s hard to recreate the specific bundle of features, users, and content that a large platform like Twitter offers. Google’s infamous discontinuation of Google Reader in 2013 was an example of this: Other solutions, such as RSS, could do what Reader did, but they were not seamlessly integrated into the Google platform, which was a major source of utility for Reader. Nearly a decade later, people are still mourning Google Reader, suggesting a true replacement was never made.

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